How Much Science Do You Need to Get Into College?

Learn About the Relationship Between Science Preparation and College Admissions

Group of multi-ethnic students in chemistry lab
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When applying to college, you'll find that requirements for high school preparation in science vary greatly from school to school, but in general, the strongest applicants have taken biology, physics, and chemistry. As you might expect, institutions with a focus in science or engineering often require more science education than a typical liberal arts college, but even among top science and engineering schools, the required and recommended coursework can vary significantly.

What Science Courses Do Colleges Want to See?

To get a sense of typical recommendations for science preparation, here are the guidelines from several different colleges and universities:

  • Auburn University: "Students must have completed course requirement in their high school curriculum. These include ... science - 2 years (This must include 1 year of Biology and 1 year of a Physical Science)"
  • Harvard: "We recommend ... the study of science for four years: Physics, Chemistry, and Biology, and preferably one of these at an advanced level"
  • NYU: "We would expect your preparation to include ... 3-4 years of laboratory sciences"
  • Stanford: "Our experience has suggested that students who excel in a curriculum like the one below are well-suited for the demands of college academics: ... three or more years of laboratory science (including biology, chemistry and physics)."
  • UCLA: "Fundamental knowledge in at least two of these three foundational subjects: biology, chemistry and physics."
  • Smith College: "There is no typical applicant to Smith and no typical academic program, but it is strongly recommended that a student prepare for Smith by taking the strongest courses offered by their high school. Where possible this should include ... three years of lab science"

Some of these schools list the science courses that they expect students to have completed in high school; when stated, these courses usually include biology, chemistry, and/or physics.

Even if a college doesn't specifically outline these requirements, it's probably a good idea to have taken at least, two, if not all three of these courses, as they provide a strong general foundation. This is especially important for students hoping to pursue a degree in fields such as engineering or one of the natural sciences.

Note that earth science does not tend to be on the list of courses colleges hope to see. This doesn't mean it isn't a useful class, but if you have a choice between, for example, earth science or AP biology, opt for the latter.

Also note that many colleges stipulate that high school science classes must have a laboratory component in order to fulfill their science requirements. In general, standard or advanced biology, chemistry, and physics courses will include a lab, but if you've taken any non-lab science classes or electives at your school, make sure you're aware of the specific requirements of the colleges or universities you apply to in case your courses don't qualify.

The table below summarizes the required and recommended science preparation from a number of top American institutions. Be sure to check directly with colleges for the current requirements.

SchoolScience Requirement
Auburn University2 years required (1 biology and 1 physical science)
Carleton College1 year (lab science) required, 2 or more years recommended
Centre College2 years (lab science) recommended
Georgia Tech4 years required
Harvard University4 years recommended (physics, chemistry, biology, and one of those advanced are preferred)
MIT3 years required (physics, chemistry, and biology)
NYU3-4 years (lab science) recommended
Pomona College2 years required, 3 years recommended
Smith College3 years (lab science) required
Stanford University3 or more years (lab science) recommended
UCLA2 years required, 3 years recommended (from biology, chemistry or physics)
University of Illinois2 years (lab science) required, 4 years recommended
University of Michigan3 years required; 4 years required for engineering/nursing
Williams College3 years (lab science) recommended

A Final Word about Science in High School

For any college or university, you will be in the best position if you have taken biology, chemistry, and physics. Even when a college requires just one or two years of science, your application will be stronger if you've taken courses in all three of those subject areas.

For the country's most selective colleges, biology, chemistry and physics represents the minimum requirement. The strongest applicants will have taken advanced courses in one or more of those subject areas. For example, a student might take biology in 10th grade and then AP biology in 11th or 12th grade. Advanced Placement and dual enrollment classes in the sciences do an excellent job demonstrating your college readiness in science.

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Cody, Eileen. "How Much Science Do You Need to Get Into College?" ThoughtCo, Sep. 29, 2017, thoughtco.com/science-needed-to-get-into-college-788862. Cody, Eileen. (2017, September 29). How Much Science Do You Need to Get Into College? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/science-needed-to-get-into-college-788862 Cody, Eileen. "How Much Science Do You Need to Get Into College?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/science-needed-to-get-into-college-788862 (accessed January 23, 2018).